Old World style: Local jeweler practices ancient, time-demanding metalworking techniques taught by a master | March 14, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - March 14, 2007

Old World style: Local jeweler practices ancient, time-demanding metalworking techniques taught by a master

by Renee Batti

Davide Bigazzi sits at a workbench in his small, warmly lit studio, the master of his space.

On the wall behind him are rows of hammers he crafted himself. A few feet in front of him, there's a long, metal-covered showcase displaying dazzling silver and gold necklaces, bracelets, rings and other pieces of wearable art — also his handiwork.

On the workbench are tools and pieces of metal he is working on this rainy morning in February, calling upon the uncommon skills he learned as an apprentice to a renowned sculptor and jeweler in the city of his birth — which also happens to be the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to noted Old World artists past and present.

"Sometimes I feel strange here," Mr. Bigazzi says, his accent reflecting his origins in Florence, Italy.

Here, on the quiet grounds of Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park, the 37-year-old Portola Valley resident is immersed in a world in which everything he does requires intensive time and focus. Yet, he notes, he finds himself practicing his slow, Old World art in the heart of the New World of high-tech, high-speed innovation. The irony is not lost on him.

"We're in the future here," he says. "To me, it's a game to be in the most (technologically) advanced place in the world, and do everything by hand."

And he does mean everything. Not only does he make his own metalworking tools, he also works from gold and silver ingots to create for himself the metal sheets he ultimately sculpts and shapes into jewelry and hollowware, such as plates and vases.

But what lifts Mr. Bigazzi's Old World practices from metal craft to art is his use of centuries-old techniques known as chasing and repousse, which he calls "the purest and most expressive forms of metal-smithing."

They are metal-sculpting techniques that require a solid investment of time and attention to detail, but that produce results of ornamentation that cannot be duplicated using other, faster methods, he says.

A proper space

Mr. Bigazzi and his American wife, Elisa, have occupied the shop at Allied Arts Guild since October, around the time they moved to Portola Valley from San Diego. The space is a fitting one for the enterprise: Allied Arts was established in the 1920s as an arts and crafts colony, and in the early days, metalworkers — as well as woodworkers, potters and other craftsmen — practiced their art there.

While Mr. Bigazzi designs and creates his metal artwork, his wife takes care of the business end of the couple's venture, which includes not only local sales but exhibits in art fairs and galleries all over the country, and teaching metalwork and jewelry making workshops both at the local studio and in Italy.

In addition to promoting her husband's work to gallery owners and other outlets, Ms. Bigazzi is eager to educate the public about the art of chasing and repousse, and her husband's reputation in the world of metal-smithing. "He's one of the best in the world in these techniques," she states.

The techniques date from antiquity, and examples of the use of repousse can be seen in 4,000-year-old Greek armor and other artifacts of war and decor.

Mr. Bigazzi describes repousse as the process of forming the contours of a design from the back of a metal sheet, using a blunt tool called a punch, which is struck with a hammer. Chasing refers to the detailing of a design from the front of the metal sheet, using smaller, specially shaped punches, he says.

'A little paradise'

Davide Bigazzi was only 14 when he began helping out in a Florentine foundry for sculpture, "just for fun." Soon after, he met artist Bino Bini, a well known Florentine sculptor and jewelry maker, who asked the boy if he wanted to apprentice for him.

Mr. Bini, who died earlier this year, had a studio close to the Bigazzi family home, and the young Davide signed on as his apprentice.

"For me, it was a little paradise," he says. "I grew up near the center of Florence, and art (and design) was the environment that you breathed every day."

Mr. Bigazzi apprenticed with his mentor for five years, and at age 19, he became an instructor at the International School of Metal Arts in Florence. His early career then ranged from work as a bench jeweler and model maker to designer, and once he began working as a freelancer, his designs ended up in collections of prestigious Italian companies and fashion houses, including Gucci.

After winning the International Artisans Award competition in 1995, he decided to quit his design career and return to handcrafting work.

During some of those years, he also took a break from jewelry and hollowware design to build a house just outside Florence. "I was absorbed by the work, but needed to stop (for a while). It was time to take a break and make something bigger than jewelry."

He set up a metalworking studio in his newly built house, which he still owns.

Coming to the New World

With Mr. Bigazzi's work gaining increasing popularity in the United States, the couple moved in 2002 to California, where they had met.

"When we came here, I came with the decision to do things (in his work) as they must be done," Mr. Bigazzi says.

Having learned from a master — and having developed the skills and sense of design of a master himself — he felt a responsibility to continue practicing and teaching the Old World techniques that few people are taking up in modern times.

On a trip to San Francisco for an art show, they visited a friend, fellow jewelry maker Edith Schneider, who has a studio at Allied Arts Guild. "We had no intention of moving here, but we loved the environment," Ms. Bigazzi says.

So they made the move, setting up shop right next to the Edith Schneider Jewelry & Accessories store.

The location works well for the Bigazzis. They enjoy having visitors to the shop, but it's not so busy that Mr. Bigazzi can't get any work done.

"Unfortunately, I like to talk," he admits. "On a busy street, he'd never get anything done, because he loves to talk," his wife confirms.

Yet, interacting with others "gives me energy sometimes," he adds. "I'm more creative when I have somebody to talk to."

Workshops allow him that interaction and the means to help keep the chasing and repousse metalwork techniques alive, but he's not planning to crank up the speed of his life by opening a school. "Everything must remain slow," he insists.

He feels lucky, he says, that he is able to be in the fast-paced Silicon Valley and still maintain that slow pace, but at times he also feels "like somebody in a zoo — like someone who grows chickens in the middle of New York."

His studio workshops are held about once a month, with the next one set for April 21-22. In June, he's conducting a chasing and repousse workshop in his Tuscan studio just outside Florence. Information on the workshops can be found at dbcollection.net.

The studio

Davide Bigazzi Studio is at 75 Arbor Road, Suite K, at Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park. The Bigazzis will be away from the studio until Wednesday, March 21, when they return from a show. For information, call 323-1923, or log on at dbcollection.net.


Posted by Beth, a resident of another community
on Dec 31, 2007 at 5:25 am

I found the article very interesting. I was looking for information on tools and classes for repousse that was done
on tinplate coffee pots, sugar bowls, and creamers in the 1800 to 1900's.

Posted by Beth, a resident of another community
on Jan 5, 2008 at 8:28 pm

I forgot to add repousse to the decoration done on tinware, which was done with engraving tools.